Best of Western Game Music: Michael Giacchino

Medal of Honor (Michael Giacchino, 1999)

Medal of Honor Original Soundtrack Album Title:
Medal of Honor Original Soundtrack
Record Label:
Dreamworks Interactive
Catalog No.:
1-56686-926-
Release Date:
December 7, 1999
Purchase:
Download at iTunes

It’s hard to find a historically more significant, more influential Western game soundtrack than Michael Giacchino’s Medal of Honor. Sure, the Medal of Honor soundtrack wasn’t the first orchestral game score to convincingly emulate movie scoring conventions. And it wasn’t even necessarily 1999’s most creative orchestral game score. That honour (no pun intended) actually needs to go to Outcast. But there were a number of powerful factors that turned Medal of Honor into a force that changed the course of game music history – and it wasn’t just the fact that Giacchino’s work was married to an immensely succesful game.

First and foremost, there is the soundtrack’s sheer artistic quality. Its strongest predecessors in the genre of live orchestral game music – Total Annihilation, Star Trek: Starfleet Academy and Quest for Glory V: Dragon Fire – had already delivered outstanding music. However, the Medal of Honor soundtrack surpasses them all in terms of both breadth and consistent quality. In other words, there’s not a single weak composition on this 60+ min album. What’s more, the score’s thematic sophistication set a new benchmark for live orchestral game music. Giacchino writes no less than three main themes that run through the entire score. He always uses these melodies judiciously and uses them to further the music’s storytelling capabilities. On top of this, Giacchino introduces a new secondary motif on almost every track, builds the respective composition around this motif, and then masterfully weaves in the three major themes.

There’s of course the Medal of Honor theme, soon to become the franchise’s calling card. Opening track “Medal of Honor” first presents the theme as a solemn bugle melody. While not wholly original, it’s a memorable melodic creation that sets a mood of gravitas and seriousness straight away. Portraying a somewhat generic sense of patriotism, this theme contrasts with the wearier, yet unyielding tones of the melody underscoring the game’s protagonist Jimmy Patterson. Crucially, his theme gives the soundtrack and its narrative of fighting overwhelming odds during wartime a more intimate, personal dimension.

Still, the musical idea that makes the biggest impact on Medal of Honor is the Nazi theme. It’s a menacing, march-like brass motif that brusquely dominates the music each time its harsh tones ring out. This theme is also the most obvious pointer at Giacchino’s main stylistic inspiration. His motif for the Nazis sounds more than just a bit like the music John Williams’ wrote for the bad guys in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

In fact, if there’s any significant flaw one might find with the Medal of Honor soundtrack, it’s the fact that it sounds so similar to John Williams’ action scoring during the late 1980s and early 1990s. These stylistic parallels hardly come as a surprise. After all, Medal of Honor was based on an original concept by Williams collaborator Steven Spielberg. Spielberg in turn was responsible for Giacchino previously getting the opportunity to write the orchestral score for The Lost World: Jurassic Park. It’s worth pointing out how much stronger Medal of Honor is than The Lost World – it’s a veritable quantum leap for Giacchino. True, he had shown promise on his earlier orchestral scores. However, his best game soundtrack to date had still been the SNES version of Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow.

So yes, Medal of Honor sounds a whole lot like John Williams a lot of the time. But in this case, that’s actually an enormous compliment. Giacchino actually manages to write orchestral action music on the same level as the maestro. That applies both to the music’s intelligent thematic constructs and sheer aural pleasure. In other words, Medal of Honor is the first live orchestral game soundtrack to realise its cinematic inspirations to perfection. And that was something that Heart of Darkness, Total Annihilation and Star Trek: Starfleet Academy had struggled with, at least over the entire duration of their album running time.

What’s so pivotal to the success of Medal of Honor is how successfully it realises its storytelling ambitions. The score creates gripping narrative arcs both within each single composition, and throughout the album as a whole. The exceedingly smart use of various themes is obviously key to this achievement. However, there are two more factors that help Medal of Honor to play just like a first rate film score.

Firstly, there’s Giacchino’s cleverly planned use of dynamics. True, Medal of Honor derives a lot of its reputation as an orchestral powerhouse from adrenaline-charged pieces like “The Radar Train” and “Rjuken Sabotage”. These are irresistibly propulsive creations that still stand as some of the best action music written for any video game. It’s worth pointing out that the first minute of “The Radar Train” is essentially an orchestrated version of one of the stage themes from Giacchino’s score for the Sega Genesis Gargoyles – have a listen here.

The soundtrack’s youthful, robust gusto might indeed be its most immediately appealing characteristic. However, what allows the Medal of Honor soundtrack to sustain its running time so well is the fact that Giacchino also knows how to write quieter music which keeps listeners on the edge of their seat. The result is a superb build up and release of tension. A composition like “Securing the Codebook” can move from quiet snare drums into a ruthless rendition of the Nazi theme. Similarly, the subdued “The U-Boat” gets enough time to paint a strikingly vivid image of its claustrophobic location.

Secondly, Giacchino develops his compositions exceedingly well developed, superbly tying together their many changes of moods, dynamics and orchestral textures. Like the very best orchestral game music, never do the pieces lose focus or direction. Equally, never do these compositions feel like a more or less well connected tapestry of musical gestures. A work like the Medal of Honor soundtrack is a resounding demonstration of how to write orchestral game music pieces that follow a flawless internal logic. As a result, they emerge as fully-fledged compositions that effortlessly function as rousing musical statements outside of the game.

Of course, Medal of Honor was far from the first Western game score to accomplish this feat. But even now, there are only very few game soundtracks that feature more fully realised compositions than Giacchino’s breakthrough success. It’s due to all this – the soundtrack’s excellent pacing, outstanding thematic work and fully developed compositions – that the victorious renditions of the Medal of Honor melody and Patterson’s theme on album closer “The Jet Craft Facility” feel like a true climax, the emotional culmination of everything that the score has been working towards.

It’s this near perfect emulation of cinematic role models that helped Medal of Honor – and game soundtracks in general – to break through to the wider music mainstream. Many within the music industry and community realised that yes, game music could be as good as film music. Of course, that had already been the case for many years, long before Medal of Honor came around. However, it took a conservative revolutionary like Medal of Honor to introduce outsiders to game music. It did so by taking a more familiar genre’s conventions and applying them in flawless fashion. Game music became acceptable to more conservative tastes that had trouble processing and appreciating the electronic sounds of the vast majority of video games thus far.

Of course, the irony is that while film music so obviously inspired the Medal of Honor soundtrack, Giacchino’s work sounds like no Hollywood war film score would have in 1999. Doubtlessly, Medal of Honor‘s Indiana Jones-inspired musical sensibilities weren’t meant to portray the brutal reality of war. Still, it emotionally involved gamers much more than what previous first-person shooters had accomplished. Precisely that had been Spielberg and Giacchino’s goal. That in 1999, a World War II first-person shooter could be (mostly) scored like a rollicking adventure movie shows that while Medal of Honor‘s music perfectly imitates cinematic conventions, there was still a lot separating the aesthetics and tone of video games and movies.

That doesn’t change the fact that the Medal of Honor soundtrack changed the industry’s perception of live orchestral game music. Previously a rare extravagance, over time it would become a de facto standard. What Medal of Honor did was to bring game music into the musical mainstream like very few other game scores. And what’s more, it has the substance and quality to back up such an elevated position.

Medal of Honor: Underground (Michael Giacchino, 2000)

Medal of Honor: Underground Original Soundtrack Album Title:
Medal of Honor: Underground
Record Label:
Dreamworks Interactive
Catalog No.:
89902
Release Date:
2000
Purchase:
Download at iTunes

Medal of Honor strove hard to create a first-person shooter experience that left an impression on players beyond the satisfaction of shooting bad guys before they could shoot you. The game addressed its World War II setting in unusually referential tones and with a strong sense of gravitas. That approach seemed to pay off, as Medal of Honor turned into a multi-million seller that spawned a long-running franchise. However, the fact that the game progressed the FPS genre in terms of subject matter wasn’t its most revolutionary aspect.

Instead, that would have been the wide-spread critical recognition of game music’s artistic quality, outside of the gaming community. Michael Giacchino’s orchestral score fashioned itself on John Williams’ action scoring of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Astonishingly, it matched the elevated standards that come with such role models. As a result, bloggers, film score collectors and music fans in general – many for the first time – took note of the music produced for a video game, a genre that so often had been burdened with uninformed prejudices of just being “electronic garbage” (to quote an earlier version of the Medal of Honor review on filmtracks.com).

Thankfully, Giacchino’s momentous achievement was not a one-off occasion, as the Medal of Honor: Underground soundtrack would prove. Underground began a period in Giacchino’s career where the majority of his game soundtracks would be written for historic war games. It’s up for debate whether this came about through type-casting, personal preference or a combination of both. However, this genre focus didn’t render Giacchino’s output monotonous or predictable. Instead, his work is a fascinating dissertation on how to find different approaches to scoring one specific kind of game. From Medal of Honor to Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, almost each war game score of Giacchino’s finds a different musical entry point to its subject matter. This readiness to evolve and experiment is already apparent on the Medal of Honor: Underground soundtrack. It manifests itself in a range of careful changes made to the robust, multi-faceted orchestral formula of Medal of Honor.

Even more than Medal of Honor, Underground aims for historical authenticity (and thus reverence). Its main character Manon Baptiste is based on real life French resistance fighter Hélène Deschamp Adams – who also served as a consultant on Underground. These efforts highlight the game designers’ increasing ambition to enrich action-driven gameplay through the retelling of one individual’s personal story. As a consequence, the Medal of Honor: Underground soundtrack shows greater interest than Medal of Honor in illuminating its protagonist’s psyche.

Giacchino finds a clever way to anchor this exploration of Manon Baptiste’s emotional state in Underground‘s thematic foundations. As Medal of Honor‘s Jimmy Patterson is absent, neither his theme nor the Medal of Honor theme make an appearance. And while Medal of Honor required two separate themes to represent Jimmy’s more general sense of patriotism, and his individual feelings of facing battle and potential death, Underground takes a more integrated approach. Giacchino’s simple but ingeniously implemented solution is to develop Manon’s two themes out of the same musical cell.

That cell is an ascending two-note motif. After these two notes, variation “A” of the main theme leads into the Major key. It conveys a feeling of national purpose, similar to Medal of Honor‘s main theme, albeit less solemn and markedly lusher. Variation “B”, on the other hand, leads into a minor 6th chord, ending on a more thoughtful note. Adding more complexity still to Manon’s musical representation is a swelling, two-note ostinato motif. This musical thought represents Manon’s determination to carry on in the chaos of battle.

A track like “Panzer Blockade” beautifully shows how Giacchino uses these musical building blocks.  First there’s a yearning quotation of the “B” variation on solo trumpet against a hammering orchestral backdrop. The music then segues into the resolve motif on swelling strings that keep on building. Despite being mercilessly attacked by other instrumental groups, the resolve motif finally erupts into a rendition of the “A” variation. It’s an emotionally and structurally convincing display how Manon overcomes her fears and hesitation to fight the overwhelming enemy forces. This is music with a gripping dramatic arc that provides insight into the mind and emotions of the game’s protagonist.

To this malleable new main theme, Giacchino adds the expected return of Medal of Honor‘s domineering Nazi theme. He also continues his technique to write his action tracks as variations on a newly introduced sub motif. The result is an immensely rich tapestry that turns the Medal of Honor: Underground soundtrack into one of the thematically best developed works in the Western game music canon.

What differentiates Underground more obviously through from its predecessor than these new themes is the music’s new emotional direction. More lyrical and light-footed than Medal of Honor, Underground heralds its intentions straight away with opening track “May 10th, 1940 (Main Theme)”, which features accordion, boy’s choir, solo cello, and a downright romantic rendition of variation “A”. For a moment, one might suspect Giacchino of musically gender stereotyping the game’s female protagonist. As it turns out though upon listening to the whole album, these softer, more colourful sounds register simply as Giacchino broadening the score’s instrumental and thus emotional palette. It’s an obvious pointer towards the operatic heart-on-your-sleeve outpourings of Medal of Honor: Frontline.

Not only are the compositions on the Medal of Honor: Underground soundtrack richer in orchestral colours than Medal of Honor. They are also more subdued and varied in their mood. Certainly, Medal of Honor knew very well when to tone down the action and integrate stealth elements into the music. On Underground however, these sounds become far more dominant. And that’s only suiting, considering that the music underscores the actions of the French resistance. The men and women couldn’t hope to beat the Nazis through open confrontation, but had to rely on covert operations.

Underground‘s best demonstration of the atmospheric results that Giacchino’s newfound versatility yields is “Among the Dead”. Deploying alternately spooky and ethereal choir, ominously pounding timpani, foreboding metal percussion and a quote of the “B” variation on noble horns against atonal strings, “Among the Dead”’s spectral eerieness adds an entirely new tonal facet to the musical universe of the Medal of Honor series.

Despite all this introspection, this is of course still the score for a shooter. As was to be expected, Giacchino delivers first-rate action material in spades. To his credit, he injects his battle tracks with the same sensibilities as his quieter compositions to keep things coherent. “Fleeing the Catacombs” is the album’s first action track and displays the same hallmarks that characterise the whole album. There are greater changes in dynamics and orchestration than on Medal of Honor. Additionally, a leaner overall sound, carried by strings rather than brass, gives solo instruments more room to breathe and climaxes the chance to truly stand out.

Highlights are numerous, but best of all is “The Motorcycle Chase”. Sure, comparisons to John William’s “Scherzo for Motorcycle and Orchestra” from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade will be inevitable. But once more, the fact that Giacchino manages to write equally stirring music as the maestro is worthy of praise. The way the cue’s sub motif seamlessly interacts with quotes of the “A” variation and the Nazi theme impresses. The composition’s development includes a passage for thunderous, unaccompanied percussion, before the cue grows more and more frantic with ever thicker textures. At last, the resolve motif leads into the score’s most triumphant reprise of the “A” variation against turbulent counterpoint.

It’s a moment of boisterous orchestral bliss, and one that beautiful sums up the cerebral and emotional pleasures to be found on the Medal of Honor: Underground soundtrack, underscoring both firefights and character beats masterfully.

Medal of Honor: Frontline (Michael Giacchino, 2002)

Medal of Honor: Frontline Original Soundtrack Album Title:
Medal of Honor: Frontline
Record Label:
Electronic Arts
Catalog No.:
402192
Release Date:
2002
Purchase:
Download at iTunes

Both Medal of Honor and Medal of Honor: Underground had made a point of treating World War II not as a fun shooting spree (well, not primarily). Instead, they approached the subject matter with an unusual degree of seriousness and respect. Medal of Honor: Frontline went further still, basing its story line on a failed Allied offensive: Operation Market Garden. This allowed the game’s developers to aim for an even greater sense of gravitas, born out of defeat and tragedy. Medal of Honor series regular Michael Giacchino must have reacted similarly to the game’s comparatively downbeat subject matter. For Giacchino, Frontline is the ideal opportunity to once more expand the Medal of Honor franchise’s emotional palette. The result is one of the most operatic, grand Western game soundtracks ever written.

Looking for stand out tracks on the Medal of Honor: Frontline soundtrack doesn’t take long. As always, Giacchino’s action music is impeccable and in fact improves on the already lofty standards set by Frontline‘s predecessors. But where Frontline truly sets itself apart is on its slower, downright elegiac compositions. These take the score’s theatricality to melodramatic heights that rival the game-score-as-opera surges of Heroes of Might and Magic II. First in line is “After the Drop”, carried by a solo boy soprano and heavy-hearted strings. The piece is haunting commemoration of the lives lost in the war. What’s more, it also resonates as a passionate plea for peace with a gravely anthemic quality.

Here as on “Arnhem”, it’s the full choir that carries these pieces to their emotional extremes. However, “Arnheim” manages to crank up the intensity even further than “After the Drop”, to absolutely heart-rending effect. Based on a gently rocking, almost lullaby-like four-note motif, “Arnhem” is a stunning creation whose emotional impact is nearly overwhelming, climaxing in two massive choral outbursts. Patriotism had always featured in this franchise, but on “Arnhem”, it doesn’t come from a place of pridesolemn pride. Instead, it is born out of sorrow and the will to survive. As a result, the music cuts much closer to the bone than Medal of Honor or Underground did. It’s a bit of a Beethoven moment for Western game music. The musical elements or structures aren’t original, but what’s new is the force of the sheer emotions that pour forward.

It seems then that Giacchino is exploring for the first time the darker side of war. However, he does so in monumentalising, comforting, melodically pleasing fashion. In a way, “After the Drop” and “Arnhem” are the musical equivalent of so many war monuments. Imagine sculptures of dutiful, pained, but unbowed soldiers and civilians, courage memorialised in granite. And indeed, it’s only later, on the less consistent Call of Duty, that Giacchino’s music would look for a grittier depiction of war that eschews bombast, pathos and emotional appeal. It’s on Call of Duty that he aims to paint World War II as chaotic destruction. On the Medal of Honor: Frontline soundtrack, war remains an opportunity for heroism and mourning. The latter is the kind of grieving that ultimately serves to lift up spirits through stirring, beautiful melodies.

However, Medal of Honor: Frontline addresses the horrors of war through less theatrical, less overtly melodically pleasing compositions as well. These pieces add some necessary shades and subtlety to Giacchino’s treatment of the subject matter. Take “Border Town” and its desolate first half. This downcast atmosphere leads into a collision between the Medal of Honor main theme and an increasing feeling of dismay.

“Nijmegen Bridge” takes these emotional contrasts one step further to represent the feelings of the Allied soldiers who had to hold Nijmegen Bridge against the approaching Nazi forces, waiting in vain for desperately needed reinforcements to arrive. The track’s opening revolves around a pleading string motif, full of anxiety and premonition. The mood is lifted to a degree when the main theme returns on solo trumpet. But all it provides is a glimpse of hope, not more than that. Dissonant violin tremoli attack the melody and never let the listener forget that a happy ending is hardly certain. In its contrasting elements, “Nijmegen Bridge” provides gripping insight into the psyche of the game’s protagonists and does wonders in fleshing them out as three-dimensional characters.

This interest in the psychology of the games’ protagonists had already characterised Medal of Honor and Medal of Honor: Underground. Not surprisingly, the Medal of Honor: Frontline soundtrack continues this tradition. In fact, it’s the successful combination of the operatic with the personal that allows Giacchino to write a score that’s so grandiose in scale, but never feels overwrought or emotionally hollow. With Jimmy Patterson’s return on Frontline, his theme and the Medal of Honor theme return to the fold. Both sound wearier and more inward then before, right from the moment when the Medal of Honor theme is presented on opening track “Operation Market Garden” by a lone boy soprano.

There’s a undeniable feeling of bereavement in most presentations of Patterson’s theme and the Medal of Honor theme on Frontline. This results in an effective musical contrast when these melodies collide with the antagonistic sounds of a frenzied battle tune. The thematic elements that the Allied themes face off against include of course the Nazi fanfare from Medal of Honor. Surprisingly though, the motif plays a relatively minor role.

Instead – in tune with Frontline‘s focus on the personal dimension of the conflict – it’s the antagonist Rudolf von Sturmgeist’s theme that shapes the score’s thematic foundations. Von Sturmgeist’s theme is a far more malleable creation than Medal of Honor‘s harsh Nazi brass attack. The theme makes its first appearance on “Kleveburg”, where it’s presented as an ominous, slithery melody on woodwinds, creating a sense of unease through its pronounced chromaticism. From here on, the theme works its way through several variations until it takes “Escaping Gotha” – and the score as a whole – to a suitably powerful conclusion, as the full choir gets to throw its weight behind the theme’s mad scientist sensibilities.

As mentioned, Giacchino’s action writing on the Medal of Honor: Frontline soundtrack is just as excellent as one would expect. A more pronounced change in dynamics and moods within compositions means that the cues on Frontline are less immediate than their rambunctious counterparts on Medal of Honor, which hit the ground running at full speed. But that also means there’s a more pronounced dramatic pull and release. In other words, it’s all the more exciting when the music kicks into overdrive and ventures into fortissimo territory. Giacchino’s Medal of Honor action pieces have always stood out for their masterfully implemented development. However, a perfectly self-contained composition like “The Halftrack Chase” manages to even surpass the composer’s sterling earlier efforts.

It all comes to a head on “Escaping Gotha”. This is most likely the best action cue Giacchino has ever written for a game score. By the time “Escaping Gotha” closes with a cathartic recapitulation of the Medal of Honor main theme, finally heard on unadulteratedly triumphant trumpets, the Medal of Honor: Frontline soundtrack has established itself as one of the most superbly conceived, fully-realised game scores committed to album.

Secret Weapons Over Normandy (Michael Giacchino, 2003)

Secret-Weapons-Over-Normandy-Soundtrack Album Title:
Secret Weapons Over Normandy Original Soundtrack Recording
Record Label:
La-La Land Records
Catalog No.:
LLLCD 1013
Release Date:
December 30, 2003
Purchase:
Buy Used Copy

Among Michael Giacchino’s WWII scores, the Secret Weapons Over Normandy soundtrack is conceptually and emotionally the most straightforward one. There’s none of the anguish and tragedy of Medal of Honor: Frontline here, none of the subtle character beats of Medal of Honor: Underground, or even the few injections of solemn patriotism of Medal of Honor – and the viciousness of Call of Duty, released almost at the same time as Secret Weapons, seems worlds away. Instead, the Secret Weapons Over Normandy soundtrack takes Medal of Honor‘s ‘war-as-adventure’ aesthetic to its extremely entertaining, bombastic extreme.

How to locate Secret Weapons Over Normandy within the context of Giacchino’s body of work? You might accurately describe it as a return to the original Medal of Honor‘s ballsy gung-ho attitude. That spirit is channelled through Medal of Honor: Frontline‘s superior grasp of orchestral colours, but without its sense of tragedy. This is partially due to Secret Weapon‘s arcade-like nature, which didn’t require a score of operatic emotional range.

Instead, it’s all about the joys of tearing through the skies and racing into dog fights. And to be honest, it’s hard to imagine a more exhilarating musical accompaniment for all this than Giacchino’s music. Secret Weapons is also an interesting counterpoint to the other great score for a WWII combat flight simulator: Jeremy Soule’s IL-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey. Both soundtracks are lush orchestral creations, but otherwise take almost diametrically opposed approaches. Majestic masses of imperial sound carry Birds of Prey, while Secret Weapons is a breathless rush of excitement.

There are figures underpinning the claim that the Secret Weapons Over Normandy soundtrack holds a special place in Giacchino’s discography. As Giacchino stated on his website: This score has turned out to be one of the hardest projects I have worked on to date. It’s contained the most music, and frankly the most notes I’ve ever written for anything. I think it’s fair to say that 75% of the music cues came in at about five minutes and were at tempos never slower than 140 and as fast as 165.” In other words, Secret Weapons is a hotbed of orchestral activity, held together by an inextinguishable sense of heroic bravado.

As on Giacchino’s Medal of Honor soundtracks, Secret Weapons‘ opening track straight away highlights where the album will be going. “Main Theme” presents a melody that despite superficial similarities differs significantly from the Medal of Honor theme. This is not a calmly confident gesture of courage, but instead a gladiatorial, brassy call to arms. From here, Giacchino embarks on his most densely written, colourful game score. Deliciously excessive, Secret Weapons shows the young composer at the height of his game, trying out how far he can push his own limits.

The number of primary and secondary themes on this score matches the sheer exuberance of Giacchino’s music. This dense web of themes permeates every minute of the Secret Weapons Over Normandy soundtrack. And it is not just a welcome bonus, but integral to Secret Weapons‘ artistic success. Keep in mind that the score’s sprawling soundscapes need a good amount of recurring thematic elements to ensure its compositions remains cohesive.

Firstly, there’s of course a patriotic main theme that’s memorable, if not exactly subtle in character. Still, the way it oozes triumph and fighting spirit makes it an effective sonic marker each time it rings out. And given that it appears on pretty much every single track, it’s fortunate that the theme proves versatile enough for Giacchino to bent it into many different directions, so that it can for example function as a lyrical counterpoint to the action material on “Dunkirk Harbor”. The game’s bad guys – the German Nemesis flying squad – get an aggressive, fast fanfare-like motif. It’s certainly effective, but it doesn’t possess a huge amount of personality.

In addition to these two omnipresent motifs, there are several secondary themes. One of them is the pentatonic theme for the Japanese forces. “The Siamese Coast” introduces this musical thought on horns backed by taiko drums. In its even, straightforward progression, the theme paints the image of enemy forces moving forward in plodding, single-minded motion. “The Rescue of Pauline” presents another recurring secondary theme. This theme is surprisingly flighty violin melody that speaks of the joys of soaring through the clouds.

How effective the interaction between these primary and secondary themes is becomes obvious for example on “Copenhagen”. Here, the Pauline theme follows a particularly brutal rendition of the Nemesis theme and breaks the suffocating atmosphere created by the latter theme’s ferociousness. To make the soundtrack thematically denser still, Giacchino deploys a by now familiar technique. He builds cues around a motif particular to a specific piece. Examples include the exotic flute melody on “Zuara” or “Fjords of Norway”’s propulsive string motif.

The Secret Weapons Over Normandy soundtrack’s “more is better” philosophy also manifests itself in the score’s wealth of orchestral colours. Recorded with a large orchestra, choir and a taiko drum ensemble, Secret Weapons pushes Giacchino’s music into various distant corners of the globe, more so than Medal of Honor: Underground did. “Zuara” is the first globe-trotting track and turns out to be one of the most interesting compositions on the album. Its fetching nature is due to its North African-styled, quicksilver flute leads, backed by resonant, yet lithe hand percussion. The lively nature of the folkloristic elements meshes well with the franticness of the orchestral sounds.

“The Siamese Coast” and “Midway” respond to their Pacific setting by including the aforementioned taiko drums. Fortunately, Giacchino resists the temptation to use these instruments to simply crank up the volume. Instead, he uses the taiko drums to power “Midway” over its six-minute running time and to provide an intriguing rhythmic bed that accompanies “The Siamese Coast”’s more homophonic textures. Finally, there are the choral sounds of “Stalingrad”, “East Prussian Factory Run” and “Fjords of Norway”, communicating icy environments. Most memorable is “Fjords of Norway”, as the sounds of war initially make way for a sense of chilling wonder, evoked during the cue’s wondrous introduction for bewitching flute ostinato and serene female choir.

Arguably, there’s not a huge amount of emotional depth to all of this. But in some ways, the Secret Weapons Over Normandy soundtrack is a singular testament to Giacchino’s compositional skills. Although the score almost constantly draws upon the same mode of expression for nearly 70 minutes – all guns blazing battle music – this whirlwind of musical ideas, colours and themes doesn’t become tiring. Giacchino manages to pull together all of the martial posturing in exceedingly well-developed pieces. His achievement is to bring structure to what could have descended into a lot of sound and fury signifying little.

The experience is similar to Kinect Star Wars, another non-stop bombardment of furious action pieces that doesn’t grow stale. It’s also understandable why Giacchino’s later game scores (Medal of Honor: Airborne and Turning Point: Fall of Liberty) would look for new approaches. It’s hard to imagine Secret Weapons Over Normandy‘s stuffed to the gills aesthetic being pushed any further.

Turning Point: Fall of Liberty (Michael Giacchino, 2008)

Turning-Point-Fall-of-Liberty-Soundtrack Album Title:
Turning Point: Fall of Liberty
Record Label:
Codemasters
Catalog No.:
N/A
Release Date:
March 14, 2008
Purchase:
Buy Used Copy

No doubt, Michael Giacchino’s body of work includes some of game music’s best and most influential orchestral scores. Specifically, it’s the Medal of Honor scores that secured his name in the annals of game soundtracks. However, Giacchino’s most fascinating and curious work of game music is another one: the Turning Point: Fall of Liberty soundtrack. Firstly, it’s surprising to see how little attention this score has attracted. After all, this was Giacchino coming back to score a World War II first-person shooter – the genre that had made him famous and sent him on a career scoring Hollywood blockbusters like The Incredibles, Mission: Impossible III and Ratatouille. But several years on, Turning Point‘s soundtrack seems mostly forgotten by soundtrack collectors.

Of course, the easiest explanation is the score album’s rarity. Never available commercially, it came as a bonus item of the game’s Xbox 360 collector’s edition. Another reason why the Turning Point: Fall of Liberty soundtrack disappeared from view is the game’s commercial and critical failure. But the most intriguing explanation for the obscurity of Giacchino’s work for Turning Point is the unusual nature of its sound world – both when compared with Giacchino’s other game scores, and Western game soundtracks in general. This is Giacchino at his most experimental and acerbic – both across his game and film scores.

True, “Main Title”’s French horn melody has the same sense of proud patriotism as the composer’s Medal of Honor scores. However, surprisingly dissonant violin tremoli attack the noble theme, which is one of Giacchino’s best melodic inventions. These harsh interjections are a harbinger of what is to follow throughout the Turning Point: Fall of Liberty soundtrack. Giacchino’s writing had already turned decidedly less melodic and emotional on Call of Duty and Medal of Honor: Airborne. However, Turning Point takes these inclinations further and introduces a new sense of disorientation and chaos to Giacchino’s music.

Those who expected Giacchino to continue the heart-on-your-sleeve approach of Medal of Honor: Frontline would have been in for a rude awakening once “Skyscraping” brushes aside even the last bit of “Main Title”’s sentimentality. A bit of a shock to the system, “Skyscraping” savagely hammers out heavy rhythmic accents and forcefully strident melody progressions. A dramatic, nearly crazed rendition of the main theme turns the melody’s previous sentiment on its head. Now the theme seems to underscore not pride and bravery, but instead panic and the impetus to just run. Fittingly, the pounding percussion rhythms – often doubled by brass and xylophone – keep changing abruptly in direction and volume. And what little consonant, melodic material we hear almost desperately struggles to hold its own against the music’s jagged aggression.

In an interview documenting the soundtrack’s orchestral recording session, Giacchino explained the motivation behind Turning Point’s acrid musical style. In his view, such disorienting music was necessary to properly underscore an event as confusing and unprecedented as an invasion of the USA. This allows Giacchino to continue his experiment in writing more abstract action music, last encountered on Medal of Honor: Airborne. That score wasn’t entirely successful, partially because it didn’t quite manage to marry this more experimental approach with the franchise’s history of melodically pleasing, militaristic bombast. The Turning Point: Fall of Liberty soundtrack has no such tradition to carry forward. Instead, Giacchino is free to cut loose and create a work full of violent musical and emotional clashes.

Turning Point’s percussion onslaught is by no means a way to simply give the music an adrenaline kick. Instead, the percussion section’s biting, irregular patterns give the soundtrack a nervy edge and jittery energy that feels driven, never uplifting or empowering. Both harsh and invigorating, the music moves in enigmatic stops and starts, creating claustrophobic feelings of tension and fright. Giacchino’s material is purposefully fragmented, but in another display of his compositional skills, the music never loses the listener’s interest. The most impressive display of this quality is “The Tower of London”. After its edgy opening ostinato, the composition disappears into a twilight netherworld. Only hushed fragments of sounds float through the nocturnal ether for minutes on end – and it’s captivating all the way.

“The Tower of London” is the soundtrack’s most deconstructive moment, pushing the boundaries of Giacchino’s musical vocabulary. The way the composition wilfully undercuts first-person shooter scoring traditions highlights one of the Turning Point’s most exciting traits. At times it feels like Giacchino heightens the music’s already plentiful sardonic bite and turns it into open satire. Just listen to the way “The White House”’s ferocious brass attacks are almost frivolously imitated by flute and xylophone. The latter play the same once commanding rhythms, mocking them through the xylophone’s inevitably light-weight timbres. Elsewhere, xylophone and flute flutters seem to poke fun at the musical struggle around them through their almost playful sounds. It’s a tendency Giacchino already displayed on Airborne. Witness how that score twisted the Medal of Honor main theme through the insertion of a new, descending five-note figure that deliberately undercut the melody’s once proud sense of heroism.

The Turning Point: Fall of Liberty soundtrack takes this approach to its logical conclusion. For most of the album, there is no romantic sense of glory, of valiantly fighting against the odds. All that remains in these sometimes maniacally driven compositions is the breathless hope for survival. Remarkably, even when the music calms down during a few interludes, relief or maybe even encouragement remains elusive. The harmonic material on “Escape from New York”, “On the Trail to DC” and “DC in Ruins” is bleakly sparse. Their sustained string chords hover in limbo, mournful but not melodic enough to inspire grief or any particularly emotional reaction.

In the end though, the Turning Point: Fall of Liberty soundtrack believe it or not – has a happy conclusion. Throughout the score, the main theme returns as a harbinger of safety, an ordering force amidst the continuous tumult. And particularly towards the end of the album, the hopeful theme rings out more and more often. First it appears on “Vigilante Justice”, then again on “Bullets & Strife”, which takes the melody into strained, chromatic territory, stretching it almost to breaking point as it fights off yet more plodding, hostile percussion rhythms. This struggle is necessary though. Sudden outbursts of optimism would be unbelievable – the way back into the light needs to be slow, and victory hard-earned. It’s a testament to Giacchino’s unfailing sense for musical development that he manages to convincingly pull off the immense tonal shift that is about to materialise.

Giacchino’s careful thematic preparation bears fruit on penultimate track “The Zeppelin”. The composition opens with Giacchino’s most harmonically advanced string writing on any game project of his. Feelings of insecurity then slowly make way as the main them asserts itself, more and more forcefully, until it leads the piece to a triumphant, reassuring finale that minutes ago would have seemed out of reach. But even so, “The Zeppelin” ends mysteriously, fading away over three harp notes and a quiet, closing piano chord. Things might not be a victoriously clear cut as they seem…

Arguably, the Turning Point: Fall of Libery soundtrack is the enigmatic culmination of Giacchino’s writing for war games. It began with the earnest emotions and thrills of his first Medal of Honor scores and Secret Weapons Over Normandy. Call of Duty highlighted new concerns, sincerely attempting to score war as brutal chaos. That approach was successfully realised only in parts though. It’s fascinating to behold how Giacchino has found the most effective way to remove the glamour from first-person shooters’ depiction of war – not through sincerity, but instead through caustic near-mockery. There’s little else like Turning Point in the realm of game music, where composers use satire and parody far too rarely.

Posted on July 27, 2016 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on July 27, 2016.

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About the Author

A former German film student now living in Melbourne, Australia and working at the University of Melbourne's Architecture faculty - and a passionate music lover with an eclectic taste. Specialising in Western game music, I'm here to dig out the best scores Western video games have produced in the last thirty years.



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